By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday cast doubt on the ability of European countries to save Iran's 2015 nuclear accord with world powers, now under threat following a U.S. withdrawal, and said Tehran might abandon the agreement.
Khamenei cautioned President Hassan Rouhani not to rely too much on European support as he came under increased pressure at home over his handling of the economy in the face of U.S. sanctions, with key ministers under attack by parliament.
Following U.S. President Donald Trump's exit from an international accord that would curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, European powers have been scrambling to ensure Iran continues to get the economic benefits needed to keep it in the nuclear deal.
But in his comments published on his official website Khamenei told Rouhani and his cabinet on Wednesday: "There is no problem with negotiations and keeping contact with the Europeans, but you should give up hope on them over economic issues or the nuclear deal."
"The nuclear deal is a means, not the goal, and if we come to this conclusion that it does not serve our national interests, we can abandon it," Khamenei was quoted as saying.
Khamenei set out a series of conditions in May for European powers if they wanted to keep Tehran in the deal. They included steps by European banks to safeguard trade with Tehran and guarantee Iranian oil sales.
Speaking at the same meeting on Wednesday, Khamenei said Tehran would not negotiate with "indecent and confrontational" U.S. officials to reach a new agreement on its nuclear program because Washington "wants to boast they managed to bring Iran to the negotiation table".
Khamenei told Rouhani and his cabinet to work "day and night" to solve the mounting economic problems which include the collapse of the rial currency and surging unemployment.
But at the same time he appeared to call on parliament not to press too much on Rouhani who has been severely grilled over economic performance. Officials should unite against U.S. pressure, he said, since publicizing differences would only make the nation more unhappy.
Earlier on Wednesday, Iranian lawmakers launched impeachment proceedings against the education minister, adding to the pressure on Rouhani.
The move came only three days after lawmakers sacked the minister of economy and finance blaming him for the collapse of the plight of the rial and mounting unemployment. They had, weeks earlier, dismissed the labor minister.
Another motion, signed by 70 lawmakers, aims to impeach the minister of industry, mines and business.
Rouhani won two landslide elections on a platform of economic reform and opening Iran up to the outside world, and his pragmatic supporters have a majority in the parliament.
But his reputation and political influence have taken a sharp hit as his promised economic gains have failed to materialize and U.S. sanctions have begun to bite.
Washington has imposed sanctions on the acquisition of U.S. dollars by Iran and it will reimpose sanctions on Tehran's oil exports and banking sector in November.
Iran's official unemployment rate is 12 percent, with youth unemployment as high as 25 percent in a country where 60 percent of the 80 million population is under 30. The rial has lost more than two-thirds of its value in a year.
A group of 20 lawmakers signed a motion on Wednesday accusing Education Minister Mohammad Bathaei of failing to reform the education system and rejuvenate schools, state news agency IRNA reported.
That is enough votes to force Bathaei to come to parliament to answer questions on his record in the next 10 days. If lawmakers are unhappy with his answers, they can vote to impeach and sack him.
Iran's parliament voted on Tuesday to reject Rouhani's explanations for economic hardship, a sign his pragmatic faction is losing sway to hardline rivals as new U.S. sanctions bite deeper.
The worst may yet lie ahead as senior U.S. officials have said they aim to reduce Iran's oil exports to zero after the new round of sanctions in November.
Iran has said if it cannot sell its oil due to U.S. pressure, then no other regional country will be allowed to do so either, threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic artery linking the Gulf crude producers to the world.
A senior Iranian military official said on Wednesday if foreign forces in the Gulf do not follow international laws, they would face the Revolutionary Guards' firm response.
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)